After a raid in Whatcom County, here’s how the community is helping undocumented workers

Northwest Detention Center blocked from expanding

In this 2018 file video, the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board upheld regulations that prevent the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma from adding immigration detention beds. The GEO Group, which runs the facility, challenged the regulations.
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In this 2018 file video, the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board upheld regulations that prevent the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma from adding immigration detention beds. The GEO Group, which runs the facility, challenged the regulations.

Ruby Castaneda and Marisol Chapina were reeling.

Hours before, their partners had been arrested as they headed to their jobs at Granite Precast in Bellingham. The undocumented workers, one from Mexico and the other from Honduras, were among 16 men arrested Aug. 29 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in what the agency called an “ongoing criminal investigation.”

So, here were the women — scared and overwhelmed — at an Aug. 30 meeting at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship, listening to Community to Community Development, a Bellingham immigrant and farmworker rights group, and Bellingham immigration attorney Hannah Stone lay out the details of what had happened and what to expect next.

Other community members were there in that room full of people, Castaneda and Chapina told The Bellingham Herald.

They also were upset. They too wanted to know what was going on. They were there to help, and that surprised the women.

“I knew that Community to Community was very supportive, but I didn’t know that the rest of the community would be as supportive and outraged, like we were,” said Chapina, a 33-year-old Bellingham resident whose partner Jahn Escobar, 26, was among the men rounded up the morning of Aug. 29.

Ruby Castaneda agreed. The 29-year-old Ferndale resident’s husband Daniel, 34, also was picked up that day.

“I think we just live in that kind of world where immigration is something that if you’re living it, it’s kind of like a hush hush, like don’t talk about it, we don’t discuss our documentation,” Ruby Castaneda said. “To see that many people care about immigration and all of that was really, how would I say, it was heart-warming almost, like a relief. I didn’t feel alone.

“I’m a U.S. citizen, but I identify myself with my husband,” Ruby Castaneda added. “So it was a relief to feel, ‘OK I’m in a room full of white people that don’t make me feel singled out because my husband is undocumented.’ ”

The Bellingham Herald interviewed people in person, over the phone and by email for several weeks, as well as previous Herald stories and an episode of “Community Voz” radio, for this story.

That room full of people did more than express their concern. They have, so far, raised $200,000 for legal fees and everyday needs for the affected families.

Granite responds

The men were accused of working without proper documentation.

In a prepared statement in response to a Herald question, Granite Precast said on Friday that it was trying to help affected families.

“As a family-owned business, we care deeply about our people and their families who’ve helped make Granite Precast the respected organization it is today. Maintaining a high level of integrity in our work has been a hallmark of our nearly 35-year history, which includes our responsibility as an employer to follow all protocols and compliance requirements in hiring our exceptional workforce,” Granite Precast stated.

“While Immigration and Customs Enforcement has shared very little information with us, what we do know is that we are confident in our hiring practices, and we stand by our policies and conclusion that we have complied with all legal requirements.

“Now, as we work to understand the facts, we’re doing what we can to help the families affected by this, while we continue focusing on serving our clients with the superior service they know and expect from us,” Granite Precast stated.

ICE did not respond to a request for more information.

Helping hands

Some two months after the 16 Granite Precast employees were rounded up and taken to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, efforts continue to help the men and their families.

Money has been collected to help pay for legal fees and bonds related to the men’s immigration cases and to help their families with daily needs such as housing, food and transportation as the workers who were arrested were often the breadwinners.

Donations continue to be accepted through the Whatcom Community Foundation and Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship and distributed via a number of groups.

As of Friday, the foundation has made $180,000 in grants to support the families, according to Pamela Jons, its executive vice president.

Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship has collected about $20,000 from the community as well.

Donors have included Chuckanut Health Foundation, which is giving $10,000, and United Way of Whatcom County, which is giving $5,000. Both are helping families with basic needs.

In all, at least 200 people have made donations to help the families, according to Jons.

It’s not the first time that Whatcom Community Foundation has helped in such cases. It first helped back in 2009 for those affected by an immigration raid at Yamato Engine Specialists in Bellingham.

Providing such assistance fits Whatcom Community Foundation’s mission, according to Mauri Ingram, its president and CEO.

“It’s that everyone who lives here thrives — emphasis on lives,” Ingram said of the foundation’s mission. “We’re not parsing anyone in the community based on any type of status or demographic characteristic.

“What we’re talking about here is not about immigration policy,” Ingram added. “It is about the opportunity that people have simply by virtue of the fact that they live here to thrive.”

Rev. Paul Beckel of Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship said it was helping as part of its partnership with Community to Community Development and because it was important to affirm the “inherent worth of every community member,” regardless of immigration status.

“We feel that they are being targeted unfairly,” Beckel said. “We’ve been glad to be able to work with the families, show them our support, show them our love, and affirm to them that they belong.”

Family members affected by the raid include students in the Bellingham, Lynden and Nooksack Valley school districts, and school officials there also are trying to help.

“Every year our system helps families in financial or personal crisis experiencing the loss of a loved one. However, an added challenge of supporting students in this particular type of crisis is the fear that it brings about accessing services like health care or counseling — even coming to school was frightening to some students or their families,” said Dana Smith, spokeswoman for Bellingham Public Schools.

“Our priority is supporting the student and their family so the student is able to return to learning, and we will continue to work to make sure our students and families have what they need,” she added.

Immigration cases

Of the 16 families, 11 have reached out and are being helped.

Half of the 16 men — they came from Guatemala as well as Honduras and Mexico — taken into custody have been deported.

Six were released on immigration bonds that were as high as $18,000, although they have been barred from working during the resolution of their cases. Two men, both from Honduras, remain in the detention center in Tacoma.

The Northwest Detention Center, a privately owned and operated immigration detention center, was built on the Tacoma Tideflats to replace a similar facility in Seattle. Opening in 2004 with a 500-bed capacity, the NWDC has since expanded capacity three times into a facility with 1,575 beds, making it one of the largest immigration detention centers in the U.S. Aerial photo taken in Spring 2012. Staff The News Tribune

Daniel Castaneda, who has lived in the U.S. for 12 years, was the first of the men to be released. He spent nine days in the center.

Jahn Escobar, who has applied for asylum fearing he will be killed if he is deported to Honduras, remains in detention. He has lived in the U.S. for five years.

Chapina, a U.S. citizen who has lived in Whatcom County for 30 years, hopes her partner Escobar will be released prior to his Jan. 28 court date.

“It’s been very tough. He has some days where he’s just trying to stay motivated and other days where he’s just like ‘I don’t know how much longer I can be here, I’m treated like a criminal. You basically have no rights in here. We basically don’t even feel human sometimes,’ ” Chapina said as she described how Escobar was holding up.

Some of the men who can’t work have been taking English classes at Bellingham Technical College, or volunteering at the Bellingham Food Bank to give back to the community.

Daniel Castaneda is among them.

“They did that so that when they are able to go back to work with their approved work permit they have more employment opportunities,” said Ruby Castaneda, who has lived in Whatcom County for 22 years.

On Tuesday, the Castanedas, who sat with their 2-year-old daughter and 3-month-old son, and Chapina around a table in the Community to Community Development in Bellingham as they talked about what has happened to them and others. The two women also discussed Raid Relief to Reunite Families, a new group they’re leading.

“We have had an enormous amount of community support and hope it can continue,” Chapina said.

Ruby Castaneda, translating for her husband Daniel Castaneda, said “He wants the community to know that they’re not criminals. They are men trying to make ends meet for their families. They’re hardworking men. These men don’t even have a speeding ticket.”

They worked hard and they worked long hours, Ruby Castaneda said.

“These men sacrificed moments with their families that they will never get back,” Ruby Castaneda added. “Some of the families have been split up from one another and may not see each other for many years to come, if ever at all.”

While they wait for their immigration cases, the Whatcom County Council, which meets Wednesday, has been asked to stand in support of undocumented workers and their families. The county’s Public Health Advisory Board says workers who fear detention and deportation may not seek medical care and social services available to them.

Meanwhile, Castaneda and Chapina want undocumented workers to know there is hope and there is help.

“If it’s going to happen again,” Ruby Castaneda said, “we’re ready for it.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

How to help

Money is being collected to help the 16 families affected by the Aug. 29 ICE raid in Whatcom County.

The funds help the families with food, shelter and other needs, as well as legal fees and immigration bonds.

There are a number of ways to donate: